BG 259: Mapping the Mindful Brain

Episode Description:

Dr. Judson Brewer is an assistant professor at Yale in psychiatry and a contemplative scientist studying the effects of meditation on the brain. He and his colleagues believe they have found a way to use FMRI to give meditators real time feedback on their mindfulness practice. This feedback has led to increased efficacy and efficiency in mindfulness practice. Since making these discoveries, Brewer has joined the Contemplative Development Mapping Project in hopes of creating a common language between meditation traditions to more easily discern progress in meditation practice.

In this episode, Brewer describes to Vincent Horn how his work in addiction treatment led to these discoveries. They discuss the difficulty in objectively marking progress on the path to awakening, how that led to his participation in the Contemplative Development Mapping Project, and how using FMRI to understand mindfulness practice may eventually affect Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike.

Episode Links:


Vincent:    Hello Buddhist Geeks. This is Vincent Horn and I’m joined this morning by a very special guest. I’m here today with Judson Brewer. Judson, it’s awesome to have you on the show. You’re the epitome of a Buddhist geek I have to say. So this is going to be a fun conversation I think.

Judson:    Thanks. I’m blushing.

Vincent:    Exactly. A little bit of background on Judson. Judson is an assistant professor at Yale. He’s in the Department of Psychiatry. He’s also what we might call a contemplative scientist. We’ll get into what that means but you basically combined an interest in science and psychology, psychiatry. Started off in how do you say this, immunology?

Judson:    That’s right.

Vincent:    Okay. And then you move recently toward like the kind of neuroscience into things. And then you’ve also been a long time mindfulness practitioner and Buddhist practitioner. So today we’re going to kind of explore what’s happening as a result of these two areas of interest and the research you’re doing. But first, I thought it’d be cool just to find out how got in to the contemplative science racket. Cause this is a pretty newly emerging field, isn’t it?

Judson:    Yes, it is. It is and very really an amazing time to be alive. All these conditions have come together in a really amazing fashion. I’ll give you the 30 seconds version which was I went through a really bad breakup right before I started medical school and for the first time in my life was having trouble sleeping. And somehow Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Full Catastrophe Living landed in my lap and I read some of the book but more started meditating listening to his cassette tapes.

And I remember my first day of medical school I started meditating. And I fell asleep for about six months listening to the tapes and then found that during lectures in medical school that weren’t particularly interesting, I would find myself paying attention to my breath. And things started rolling from there. There was a sangha in Saint Louis where I was in medical school. I started sitting with them, went on my first retreat. [Bonti Gee?] was my first retreat teacher. The manager there, Jenny Morgan, ended up being my teacher for about 12 years or so. And so everything just started rolling from there.

I was doing immunology research with mice. And by the end of grad school I’d been practicing enough that I didn’t feel comfortable doing anymore mouse research. Not that I’m making any judgment call one way or another, but just for myself I didn’t feel comfortable. So I stopped. And when I started residency in psychiatry I had to figure out how to retool and what to do.

And in undergrad I was very interested in the brain and didn’t really find a lab, a pure neuroscience lab in grad school that I wanted to work in, so I had kind of done this hybrid lab work where we looked at the effects of stress on the immune system. So started just retooling in residency where I joined the neuroscience research training program at Yale where we had a little bit of protected time to foster and develop research projects.

And so I started learning neuroscience, neuroimaging. I started running, you know ran my first clinical trial for mindfulness training for people with addictions during residency and things just kind of took off from there. So it’s been a long and winding road but very interesting for me.

Vincent:    Very cool.  You know I know one of the big institutes and one of the big supporters of contemplative science has been the Mind & Life Institute. I was wondering if you had run across them in your work or if they were part of their process?

Judson:    Yes, I remember during residency I somehow finagled a couple of days off to go down to Washington, D.C. when the Dalai Lama was speaking. And this is the first time I’d heard of the Mind & Life Institute. And so I don’t know if that was 2006 or something, but I remember meeting John Teasdale there and was just really enamored because my practice, I’d been practicing about 10 years at that point, and I was really excited about seeing science, this actually come in to the scientific realm and become to be a little more accepted in general scientific circles.

So I immediately applied for the Summer Research Institute that winter and went, that was the first institute I went to and I applied for a Varela grant actually. And that started my career. We studied whether mindfulness training could help people with alcohol and cocaine dependence. And so yeah I owe a lot to the Mind & Life in terms of getting me started.

Having some initial research funding and meeting quite a few of my collaborators and now good friends through that network. We just have a fabulous time at their contemplative conference in Denver. We basically hung out until about 3 in the morning every night just talking dharma. It was really fun.

Vincent:    That sounds awesome. And you know you were mentioning some of the things that we want to explore today. You’re mentioning some of the early clinical trials that you did with mindfulness and addiction. And then I understand there’s also some other stuff you’re working on now that’s also really interesting.  So I was wondering if we could maybe get an overview some of the research you’re doing and have done and also some of the areas that you think are most interesting and most relevant to the Buddhist geeks.

Judson:    Sure. Sure. One thing that I noticed during residency was that people with addictions were speaking the same language as the Buddha, craving, clinging, wanting. And so this was an underserved population and one that not that many people were interested in kind of touching. It’s a difficult field. You know addictions are really difficult to treat. We did a couple of trials there just to see if we could get a signal. You know we wanted to see if mindfulness training would actually work.

And it seemed to work pretty well and we were even seeing physiologic changes. We were studying heart rate variability and then started studying neural changes with mindfulness training with this clinical population.  We had really strong positive finding in our smoking cessation trial. It outperformed the American Lung Association Freedom for Smoking which is one of the gold standard treatments. We found a clinical signal that we believed and thought we could go with.

And with that we said well now let’s go back and look at the neural mechanisms. What’s actually going on? So we did a study where we took a lot of Theravada or insight practitioners. I shouldn’t say a lot. There were about 12 of them who had a lot of experience, on average about 10,000 hours of practice. And we compared their neural activity to those of novices who we trained in the techniques that morning, the morning of their scans.

Now as I’m sure everybody listening knows the instructions are simples. You know pay attention to your breath. But they’re maddening hard to do, so simple but hard. And so it’s really easy to teach somebody but it’s not that easy to change your brain. That would be my guess. And so we compared their brain activity and we had them do three different types of meditation, and we looked to see what was similar in all three.

And the hypothesis would be that you should see something, you know, some common neural substrate that’s showing some movement one way or another. And we were a little surprised when we analyzed the data. We didn’t see much activity in the brain like increased activity in experienced meditators but we saw some specific brain regions that had deactivation patterns.  And when we looked more closely at this, it was fascinating.

We were pleasantly surprised to see that two of the main brain regions that were deactivated, and on whole there were only four or five that survived statistical thresholds, but two of those were part of the default mode network. And the default mode network is particularly interesting because it’s all about me.  And so it fits the theory that this practice is about very very well.  So what’s the Wei Wu Wei quote?  Why are you so unhappy?  Because 99% of everything you think and everything you do is for yourself, and there isn’t one.


Vincent:    Nice.

Judson:    And so this default mode network, it’s called the default mode network because it was discovered to be active when people were just laying still and they were doing this “controlled” task of don’t do anything in particular. Well guess what we don’t do in particular when we’re not doing anything in particular. What we’re doing is we’re thinking about ourselves, all the time.


Vincent:    I do know what you’re talking about.


Judson:    Well and for those out there that might also have no idea what I’m talking about, this actually is present about 50% of our waking lives. So there’s a study in Harvard that’s well-known now done by Matt Killingsworth where they probed people throughout the day and they found that 50% of the time people’s minds were wondering.

And typically when they were wondering they weren’t very happy. And typically it’s this self-referential stuff.  There was a more recent study that just came out this year in the proceedings in the National Academy of Sciences where somebody actually gave people a choice of monetary reward or to disclose about themselves. Guess what they chose?  [laughter]

Vincent:    I’d say the latter.

Judson:    Yes. They would rather talk about themselves than earn money. And in fact when they imaged people that were doing this, their self-referential default mode network was activated and also the reward centers of the brain, the nucleus accumbens was activated.

So it’s rewarding to talk about yourself which is probably why Facebook is worth $100 billion or $50 billion or whatever it’s worth now. It’s worth all this money because it provides 1. You get to talk about yourself. What am I doing? Here’s pictures of me. There’s this and that. It also provides gossip and gossip is sticky. What are other people doing?

And it also does this in an intermittent reinforcement fashion which is the most reinforcing type of learning. So it happens at random times. You don’t know. It’s not on a regular schedule.  So all of that is many tangents away from the original question which is why are interested in the default mode network and why we’re so excited to see deactivation in the default mode network in experienced meditators.

Now I’ll just briefly mentioned that we saw deactivation especially in the posterior cingulate cortex during all three meditations.  So whether it was loving kindness or concentration, pay attention to the breath, or choiceless awareness where you’re just receptive to whatever’s arising in awareness.  All three of them deactivated that brain network.

So we were pretty excited to see that and it fits beautifully with the theory. And you know Wei Wu Wei is probably laughing somewhere. [laughter] Everything you do is for yourself and there isn’t one! So when we activate these brain regions, we create problems. And the meditators on average they’re deactivating them. I won’t go into all the details but we also found that they seemed to change their default mode.

So these folks were activating self-monitoring regions and also co-activating cognitive controlled regions whenever the self-referential networks were coming online. So it’s kind of like that whack-a-mole. You can think of it this way. I don’t know if this is really true. But it’s like the monitoring is there and then whenever self comes online it whacks it. Bam!

So this might be where the cognitive control regions are.  You can think of it as, in a less violent analogy, as just letting go.  Oh! There’s self. It’s nothing. And we don’t feed it. So if you think of the upādāna, of the feeding part, you don’t feed the self and then it just arises. It’s not a problem and it fades away very quickly.

Vincent:    Very interesting. And when you say cognitive control that sounds similar in some ways to the Buddhist terminology of like mindfulness. Is that sort of an accurate connection there?

Judson:    Well it depends by what you mean by mindfulness. So if you go by the Satipatthana Sutta, there are five different elements that encompass this. So you can look at the fifth one which is removing basically craving and aversion with regard to the world. You’d have to ask Jake Davis or some of the other Pali scholars about the actual terminology there.

But the short of it is when it arises, that may be where the cognitive control regions come back in and say well that’s your old habit, let go of that. Let go of that.  And so the cognitive control could be simply notice what you’re doing and now let go instead of being caught up in it.  Yeah.

It would be different in different stages of practice.  Sometimes people may need a more active process at the beginning of practice, at the end when people are very equanimous and there’s equanimity all throughout, it can just be the noticing and noticing.  And really there’s not a lot of cognitive control that needs to be there cause you’re already in your new habit pattern.

Vincent:    Okay. Got you. So some really interesting stuff coming out of this research. And this was your earliest research, right, in terms of seeing deactivation patterns in certain areas of the brain. That’s really cool. Were you one of the first folks to see that trend or where there other people also discovering that?

Judson:    Well a lot of people had reported and published papers. I think Richie Davidson’s group was one of the first to publish with neural activity patterns in the brain. People had been publishing different things for a while. But there seemed to be a bloom. This is like a dharma bloom like an algae bloom. In 2011, Véronique Taylor up in Montreal published a paper where she had mindfulness practitioners view images like pictures that are affectively-laden, like you know you get sucked into something.

And she found that this same network was less active in experienced meditators when they were viewing pictures. So that paper came out just before ours. And also Giuseppe Pagnoni just published a paper in 2012 where he showed that the same posterior cingulate region when it is basically on average deactivated in Zen practitioners.  This correlates with improved performance on a rapid visual information processing task on a different day.

And so he started bringing together this neural activity with actual behavior. So there’s a lot of stuff that’s coming out that’s starting to really converge on the same region.  I’ll also mention that there was a Psilocybin paper that was published in early this year that was very interesting.

This is out of a group out of London, and they found when you give Psilocybin, which is like a sledge hammer, then they also got deactivation of these same network nodes. And they saw up to 20% signal change decrease.

It’s like a sledge hammer, so kind of throwing someone into selflessness.  So, all of these data seemed to be converging on this network as being very important here.  And I’ll also mention we were just trying to, and this is where we can start to geek out a little bit, we were just trying to confirm our results because lots of people published stuff before we did.  How do we know our stuff is any good?

And right when we were analyzing our data, all these other papers hadn’t come out yet. And so we started using real time feedback as a way just to bring this first and third person perspective a little closer to each other. The observer effect is always going to be there so by observing you’re going affect the result.  But you can at least bring them closer together temporaly, in a time manner.

So what we were having people do was just meditate with their eyes open and let this graph of their brain activity that they can look at it’d be in the background.  And every now and then check in with the graph to see if it was correlating with their experience. We were looking specifically at the posterior cingulate. We were finding that it was well correlated.

It correlated very highly with people’s experience. So when it was active, they were doing something self-referential or mind wandering. When it was de-active they were concentrated or some even described it being in the flow state. And so it correlated very well.  But the more interesting, and this is where we can geek out, the more interesting part was some of these novices were learning to meditate, like learning to make their brains looked like experienced meditators, in literally 9 minutes.

They would get out of the scanner and they would go “wow! when can I come back?”  And our technologist would say that was so cool. When are you bringing in your next subject? So, there was something happening that was serendipitous because we were asking them do not use this as feedback. We just want to use this as way to confirm our brain regions. But they couldn’t help themselves.

You know it’s like they were learning stuff and they were learning things like passaddhi, tranquility, that fifth factor of awakening. It’s necessary. [laughter]  You need to be in a relaxed, receptive mode of being when you’re being mindful. This isn’t about pushing anything. I wish I knew that 10 years ago when I was striving my butt off.  [laughter]  You know that would be very helpful.

This is from somebody who learned this in 9 minutes. I was paying attention but it was red. I just relaxed and it was super blue after that. There was another that showed a lot of reds in one of the runs.  And he said it shouldn’t be red I was thinking about my breath.  And then the next run it was very blue and so he just completely turned that region off.

And so what did you do? And he said, “Oh, I noticed the difference between thinking about my breath and feeling it physically.” So this is really where we can talk about embodied practice, but you can’t tell if somebody is doing embodied practice just by looking at them.  You know they can be taking a nap. They can thinking about Hawaii. They can be doing whatever.

But it’s harder for them to lie to themselves. And so we were starting to see wait a minute. These guys are learning this stuff really quickly at least learning what is Joseph Goldstein talks about this Chinul’s quote sudden awakening, gradual cultivation. And so the idea here is you can show somebody what it feels like literally what it feels like with the experiences to drop that self-referential processing.

And then they can learn to do that perhaps offline and come back and check it. You know every now and then and use neural feedback as a way to help confirm that they’re doing this practice correctly. You know think of a yoga practitioner. Somebody could be doing a Rodney Yee video for 10 years and say I’m the best Rodney Yee yoga dude in the world.

And then they go to Rodney Yee and Rodney Yee says what are you doing? Well I just followed your video. And Rodney can say well drop your hips. Do this. Do this. Relax. Whatever.  We can’t pop somebody’s head open and say caught you, you’re not meditating. Thinking about the breath rather than feeling it physically.

Vincent:    Awesome. So you guys in a certain way stumbled upon the profundity of the live feedback in terms of a learning tool.

Judson:    Absolutely. Yes.

Vincent:    That’s awesome. That’s really cool. And that’s one of the really exciting things about your research because like a lot of research it may actually have some really amazing implications for the kind of average meditator one day. So going into another area, you’re working on something called the contemplative development mapping project as well.

Judson:    Yes.

Vincent:    And we spoke to one of your colleagues and friends Willoughby Britton on the show and she mentioned a little bit about this.

And I know also because I’ve done a lot of practice in the insight world. Some of my teachers have been folks that you’ve had come in and sit in the fMRI machines.  And I’ve heard a lot about what it’s like from their perspective. I’m really curious as to what you’re doing and how it’s going.

Judson:    Sure. Well you should come and visit.  [laughter]

Vincent:    I want to.

Judson:    That’s the best way to know. [laugther] So with the CDMP which Willoughby is really spearheaded and it’s just so fun because you get to think about dharma as your work. It’s just really really great fun. And with the goal of actually using this as a way to help people, you know god forbid, we actually help people with some of this stuff.

So Willoughby brought us together and she said she’d been working on a lot of different projects. Like one of them, her Dark Night Project, having to do with looking at some of the later yanas in the Mahasi Traditions mapping where they look at stages of insight. And we got together and started thinking about can we actually start to map this stuff.

Because it would be really helpful and very interesting to see if people’s brain change with let’s say one of the most obvious ones would probably be stream entry for example, or can you look at what happen next.  Can you look at these types of things?  So we got together and so Willoughby headed this up.

Jake Davis who was a former monk under U Pandita and a Pali scholar was part of this, Jared Lindahl, Chris Kaplan also, who has been working with Willoughby. There have been a number of folks involved in various aspects of this. So we came together, and Willoughby already mentioned this so I don’t want to be too redundant, but came together and we first had a retreat for a couple of days together.  And then had a small conference where we just started outlining the methodology and the feasibility of doing this type of stuff. And Jared did this beautiful job of bringing a number of different traditions’ maps together to see how they lined up. So we could ask the fundamental question.  Can we actually map this stuff?

And you know not as a way of “hey check me out. I’m an anagami or whatever.”  But as a way of saying what happens to the brain and can we use this as a way to mark progress so when people are practicing they can see if that practice is useful? You know like who is it, Vince Lombardi who said practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.

And so somebody who’s doing practice for a long time it’d be helpful for them to know if it’s actually helpful. And if we can map whether people are making progress then we might be able to use that information to give people a snapshot as to whether the practice that they’re doing is helpful. Now that’s a lot of third person type stuff.

Ultimately, it comes down to well are you a jerk, are you less of a jerk, are you happy, are you happier.  Are you more content? Are you more at ease with things? I think ultimately this does come down to first person experience. But we can look to see how that first person experience correlates with some of these brain activity patterns and other ways of looking at things as well.

Brain activity is just where my main interest is so I will be brain centric here. But there are many things that we can look at.

Vincent:    Right. Right. So there’s multiple kind of ways of looking at.  You mentioned like the skin response stuff and heart variability and all those other things. I’m curious. Is your sense that there are patterns that play out that are kind of correspond to some of these kind of ancient descriptions of subjective patterns. What’s your sense of that and what are you finding?

Judson:    Let me say we met over New Years and the consensus was “wow this is going to be difficult.” So we’re just now still trying to bring together some ways to get self-report measures of where people report they are with stages.  Because everybody has their own map and everybody has their own of what a map is, etc.

And then use that as a way to move forward with looking at what do people very far along look like.  So we got some preliminary data from folks that seemed to be, you know have practice like their hairs on fire and be living in a way that seems to be with much less suffering and much less self going on. But I can’t say anything yet because we haven’t really nailed the basic premise which is can we do this?

Now we think we can but we need to refine that a little bit more before we really go and trust any of our analysis or start doing any specific analysis where we say okay now we can test this hypothesis based on this.  Again have this first person third person problem. We need to bring those together more before we can start actually doing the analysis that we trust.

Vincent:    Okay. Cool. I’m curious because you said that wow this is going to be difficult. What are the biggest difficulties in something like this from a researcher’s point of view?

Judson:    Well it’d be great to know across traditions if there’s some common marker.  Like what’s a good marker? So if you have two x chromosome, good likelihood that you’re going to phenotypically look like a female. You’ve got one x and one y, good likelihood that you might look like Vince. So that’s a good marker where you can say okay we got this thing which is x chromosomes and this leads to this phenotype.

Now that’s one of the hardest things because as Jared was finding and describing so eloquently is that these maps don’t line up very well. They just don’t line up very well, and this is just within Buddhism. He didn’t even look beyond into Christian contemplative etc. So that’s a whole other ball game. But the idea would be regardless of tradition they can all be different fingers pointing at the moon and it doesn’t matter.

But we should see some commonality there regardless of which finger you’re using to point out the moon.  So that’s the hardest thing is we’re still shaking our head and trying to figure out what is going to be a good marker that we can all trust and agree on.  So that we can then use that as a way to okay have you made it into this bucket or are you still at this bucket regardless of tradition and then we can scan and see if their brains are different.

We’re very binary in science.  Is it this bucket 1 or 0, this bucket or this bucket, pleasant, unpleasant, all that.

Vincent:    Got you. Got you.  So it sounds like one of the main difficulties is in finding and agreeing upon actual common understanding of what these different Buddhist techniques and practices are actually leading toward.

Judson:    Yeah and preliminary steps along the way. What does stream entry look like even in different traditions? What might that look like whether you use the word stream entry or something else or kensho or whatever? How can we define that in a way that everybody agrees on this and it’s regardless of tradition. Like what is that look like phenotypically or from somebody’s first person experience which of course is going to be bias by an interpretation by the self.

Vincent:    Very interesting. It seems like from an outsider looking in who spent more of their time on the contemplative side of the street, that this would be really challenging because in a way you’re having to probably come up with a new language to describe some of these things I imagine.  Because if you just take one tradition, like you just take the insight tradition, or the Theravada tradition and you just try to sort of fit everything else into that, that clearly isn’t going to work in a certain way. So what you end up having to do sounds like is come up with a new language or a new way of modeling this stuff and that sounds like a lot of work.   29:06

Judson:    It is but it’s worth it. And the idea is can we come up with universal language, universal terminology that everybody can say oh yeah, yeah, that’s what we called this but everybody agrees that that is something that’s real. And one difficulty here is even when we come up with this stuff somebody could study the cliff notes and say yeah, yeah, I got that.

And it’s like they published the Koans in the Zen tradition.  Well somebody could come and recite the Koans and that’s where the teachers come in and differentiate somebody who is just reciting Koan answers versus their really embodying it. And that’s a little harder to do with some supposed objective questionnaire that we’re trying to develop.

So it may be a combination where we have a screening questionnaire and that gets back up with some type of interview.  But then the question is who does the interview in this and that. You can see that it gets very complicated very quickly.

Vincent:    Okay. Great. Thank you. And I’m wondering you know assuming that you’re able to make progress on this as you hope. What do think the implications of something like that would be: a contemplative map that sort of independent of religious traditions and has some actual…has some more, I guess, complex ways of assessing.

You know like you said with fMRI thing you can’t really lie when you see the red thing popping up. It’s difficult to lie to yourself where it’s easy to lie to ourselves and to other people without even intentionally doing it. So I’m curious what are the implications of something like that in your mind.

Judson:    Well hopefully it could be useful in a way to again give people feedback as to you know somebody says oh yeah, I’m selfless. And we could say, oh yeah, get in the scanner. And we actually had somebody who kind of demonstrated this for us where they said you know I just try to spend my time being in the moment all the time. And we said okay get in the scanner. And he got in the scanner.

And we said okay be in the moment and you could watch his brain activity get more red more red as he was getting more self-referential, more self-referential.  So that can give people check as to what they mean by being in the moment all the time. So what we did with him for example was we said okay just do four things.

So he’s in the scanner. It was all red and we said okay just do four things: When seeing just note seeing. When hearing just note hearing. When feeling of the body just note feeling, and when thinking just note thinking. Can you do that? Yes.  Okay.

We turned it on again and he went from red to blue. And so you can do things to show people when people say, oh yeah I’m enlightened, which is usually a red flag when somebody comes knocking in my door. Oh yeah, I’m enlightened scan me. Okay. Let’s get a little more information here. Well this could be an objective way for people to learn whether they do have things hidden in the closet.

And we’ve had some examples of very experienced practitioners come into the scanner and just meditate and then see these little tiny red blips. And there was one in particular who said, “I noticed these little red blips. And I didn’t think anything of them. I’ve been seeing them for 10 years. But the scanner made me look for them.”

And she said well I realized that there was this image that would pop into my head and I didn’t think it was a problem. It was just an image. I wasn’t even in it. But there was this desolate feel to the image. And I noticed that there was a subjectivity, there was this affective desolate feel that was self-referential, that was me and I hadn’t noticed that before.

And she’d been practicing for 10-15 years and said thank you that was really helpful. Because see a little thing that hadn’t be uprooted and when you can see it it’s much easier to uproot it or let it go. So these types of things can be objective feedback that can really be helpful for people and sometimes in a very sobering way.

Vincent:    Two things that come to mind as you’re describing this. One is you’re talking about an increased in efficacy of these practices and their aims, both with the live fMRI stuff. You know people actually, like novices learning how to meditate rapidly like within 9 minutes which is amazing. And then even with more advanced practitioners.  These little blips that they hadn’t really registered before as being something to investigate or look at and that being something that increase efficacy.

So it sounds like one thing you’re talking about is an increase in efficacy that could come out in some of the work you’re doing which I find really fascinating.  And then the other piece is when something is translated into a language of science, when you’re talking about deactivating, for some reason that connects a lot more with the average person very clearly. It connects a lot more with people.

So there’s something in what you’re doing that to me also speaks to scaling or to sharing this with a broader population. The implication of this seem twofold: efficacy and then also like broader appeal. So I’m curious if you’ve reflected on these or what your reflections on these have been. Because it doesn’t insignificant what you’re describing.

Judson:    So let’s start with the second one and then you remind me what the first one is. So looking at this in terms of this science, you know this language of science, I really think that science, just my opinion, but science is really viewed as a religion on the west.  People see it on the news and they say scientist did this and everybody says guess what’s true. And the scientists are like oh my god, they’ve completely misquoted me.

So the idea here is that there are faith that is engendered.  And I think of it as evidence based faith. So if we really look at our own experience moment to moment to moment, we get enough evidence every moment when we’re causing suffering and when we’re not. And if we can see it clearly enough there’s evidence based faith right there.  But for a lot of people seeing their own brains for whatever reason is really helpful in engendering evidence based faith.

And so I’ve actually done this with some of my patients where they’d come in  to my office and we’re doing something, whether its working with anxiety or we’re working with smoking or whatever. And I show them.  I say okay here’s this noting practice. And I don’t even talk about Buddhism or anything, you don’t need to.

We say this is something that we’ve done to help people quit smoking. When you have a craving, see if you can note it so you can ride it out, so if it’s burning, clenching, tightness and really keep it embodied. And then I show them these pictures and I say here is, cause we’ve had people doing notice practice in the scanner and guess you know it’s blue.  It deactivates the [inaudible], and I say look here’s somebody just lying in the scanner and it’s all red. And then we just teach them the simple noting practice and look what their brain looks like. And it’s just completely deactivated. And they go wow. Okay. I’ll practice. And so for some reason that’s enough to light a fire under their butt that this isn’t just some other joker psychiatrist telling them some other thing to do, it can actually change their brains.

And that’s something that is very palatable and maybe engenders enough of that spark to have them go out and practice so they can develop their own evidence based, so they get their own evidence based faith which is all they need. And then you’re not going to stop when you see that Santa Claus isn’t real it’s not like you can go back and pretend that you didn’t see that.  [laughter]

Vincent:    And then the other piece around efficacy.  What do you think about that? What are the implications?

Judson:    Well again it goes back to this practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect. You can imagine it could help us do things correctly. And the more you practice things correctly, the better you’re going to get at them more quickly. And so people are going to see, I imagine they would start to see progress in their own, progress toward the decreasing and suffering. They’d see this much more quickly for themselves.

And they would see maybe that they’re becoming less of a jerk more quickly and they would see that oh I can really see what this flow state feels like and I can drop into.  And now I know what that feels like so it’s much easier for them to drop into that. And then that in itself is rewarding. And so, the efficacy builds on itself using our own natural reward based learning.

You can think of it as if they’re looking for the, just make sure that you see what the trigger is which is stress. And then notice what it feels like when you let go. It’s like the joy of letting go.  And the joy of letting go in itself can be a reward. And part of that is when they see feedback and see that their brain is changing they can trust that that joy is joy that should be fostered as compare to stuff like excitement which often we say I was excited, maybe that’s happiness.

In reality until they realized that that’s just dopaminergic samsaric garbage they’re going keep doing the excitement stuff cause they don’t know anything that’s better as compared to when they notice the joy they can see with the feedback yeah this is what you should be aiming for. Okay.  Good. I can keep doing that.  I can trust that. And that’s where the faith comes in.  But again a lot of this is theoretical. This is where we’ll be testing to see if this is actually true.

Vincent:    Okay. Cool. And then maybe like a wrap-up question, because this is Buddhist geeks, you know we also want to explore the implications for quote unquote “Buddhism” which is a big topic in and of itself. But what do think some of this might mean for the Buddhist tradition moving forward?

Judson:    Well it could mean a lot of different things depending on someone’s conditioning. I know that’s a cop out answer. So for example, the first thing that pops into my head is well let’s see how attached people are to their concepts.  [laughter] So somebody might say oh that stuff shouldn’t work or it can’t work, it shouldn’t replace a teacher.

My question would be how do you know. We haven’t been in this moment in history before where we’ve had technology and we’ve been exposed to a lot of different teachings. And I’m not saying that this will replace teachers or practice at all.  This isn’t an enlightenment machine. This is just feedback that can augment the process.

And so in the sense you might see reaction to where people would say this is not traditional Buddhism. And I would say so what. I’m not calling it traditional Buddhism.  I’m just calling it feedback. If you’re driving off the road do you want to know it or not. [laughter] Who cares what you call it? Are you about to go into a ditch or not.

And I would like to know if I’m about to drive into ditch. That would be very helpful for me.  So one thing it might have implications on is whether people have aversive reactions to this and that would be interesting. Another would be, when we get more creative, when we say how can we actually combine this with teachings.

Because also never before in history, of course, we’d never had this moment before, but if we take all of this exposure to different teachings and this ready access via the internet and via books and via Buddhist Geeks and stuff like this where people can really be exposed to a lot of different trainings we can start to be creative.

And we can say how can this type of feedback be helpful for this type of training that we’re doing, for noting practice that we’re doing, for this type of thing that’s being what did you call it– appified. We’re appifying this type of practice. Well can we use feedback to see what of the apps work? Cause there are a lot of apps out there and some might be better than others.

We want to know that! Is my car going to drive off the lot or are you selling me a lemon. I want to know this! We don’t have that much time. Every moment is precious. So I think it’s our responsibility to one see how this fits with the teachings, and also for the people that are putting the teachings out there to be brutally honest and say I should really check to see if this works, cause there’s a lot of stuff that’s not evidence based.

And somebody says I have a great app and it might be a great app. It might be the best app in the world but we don’t know it until we test it. And this might be a way to help vett some of this stuff quickly which would be good because I think a lot of these apps are going to come online faster and faster and faster.


Judson Brewer

Judson Brewer received his MD/PhD from Washington University in St. Louis, where his thesis work focused on molecular mechanisms of stress hormone regulation of the immune system using conditional knockout mouse models. After training in mindfulness meditation during medical and graduate school, Judson shifted his focus from animal models of stress, to the elucidation of neurobiological mechanisms underlying the interface between stress, mindfulness and the addictive process, and in developing effective means for the modulation of these processes to better treat substance use disorders. Additionally, his laboratory is interested in improving methods to assay mindfulness practice and acquisition. They are working to delineate brain activation patterns during specific meditation techniques, and to link these to physiological and behavioral measures. Ultimately, they hope to be able to use this knowledge to not only more accurately measure neurophysiological correlates of mindfulness, but to improve mindfulness acquisition, leading to directly measurable effects on health outcomes. Website: Yale School of Medicine